France

France

Government may favour big projects -- More uncertainty in France

Just as it seemed that the wind market in France, the third largest in Europe, could look forward to a period of sustained long term growth, it has been thrown into turmoil once again, this time by the threat of major changes to the permitting system for wind turbines. Various proposals to "improve" regional development plans are now on the table, following a U-turn on how turbines should be placed in the landscape. Instead of integrating small groups of turbines into the countryside, the government's idea now is to give priority to fewer but larger wind farms in fewer areas of France.

The news came in a document released late last month by environment and energy minister Jean-Louis Borloo at the start of renewable energy week, a series of conferences, events and trade fairs held in Paris. Entitled "Fifty measures for the development of renewable energy of high environmental quality," the document is largely a synthesis of decisions made so far in the context of the Grenelle de l'Environnement, a national summit formulating government environment policy (Windpower Monthly, September 2007). Much of the contents of the "Borloo Plan," as the document has been dubbed, is good news for the renewables industry, particularly solar and biomass, but the picture is decidedly murky for wind energy.

The plan notes that with France aiming for 20,000 MW of installed wind power capacity by 2020, the probability of being able to see a turbine from anywhere in France ten years from now will be nearly 100% if each wind farm has a rated capacity of just 10 MW. The probability drops to around 10% if wind turbines are gathered in groups of 200 MW. "It is therefore necessary to give priority to building bigger plant," Borloo concludes.

As the wind industry is quick to point out, however, many of the sites that are suitable for large scale wind installations have already been developed, while in some cases smaller projects fit better in the landscape. Nor are bigger plant likely to improve local acceptability or appease those who complain about the industrialisation of the countryside. Borloo's answer is that "if bigger plant are built, it will be necessary to improve the regulatory framework and local consultation." Wind power will therefore be subject to an "ad hoc" system, he proposes.

Four year appeal

Exactly what this means, no one quite knows, but the fear is that it could be a coded reference to regulations covering the big polluting and potentially dangerous industries, which critics want applied to wind power (Windpower Monthly, July 2008). In its most draconian form, industries "classified for the protection of the environment" (ICPE) are subject to an appeal period of four years.

After Borloo's bombshell, the permitting issue was raised in debates throughout the renewable energy week. In an impassioned plea following the minister's presentation, Claude Turmes, a member of the European parliament, argued strongly against classifying wind power under ICPE regulations. "Who can explain to me what is polluting or dangerous about wind power and why projects need an appeal period of four years?" he asked. "France will look ridiculous if it allows this to happen."

Unwelcome uncertainty

Jean-Louis Bal of national energy agency ADEME says these worst fears may not be realised. There has been some discussion at ministry level of a simpler and less onerous ICPE regulation, with a two-month appeal period, aimed specifically at wind power. There is even talk of such an "ICPE light" replacing the siting permit, says Bal, which "could be a good thing." Changing the ICPE regulations, however, requires a change in the law, which brings with it the unwelcome spectre of uncertainty in a wind market that is now functioning, says the wind lobby.

That view is apparently not shared by Borloo. Beyond tampering with the permitting system, he also says he will introduce regional "climate, air and energy" plans. Among other things, these will identify the wind power potential of each region and "create the dynamic for development."

Worries

The wind industry, which has been calling for regional plans for many years, agrees they could be a useful tool, but worries at the length of time required to draw them up. It would be necessary to have full consultation with the public and the industry if they are to be effective.

Bal says Borloo would have to issue clear instructions to the regional authorities that they must continue to issue siting permits and approve wind power development zones (ZDE), within which projects must be built to qualify for the guaranteed premium purchase price, while the plans are being prepared. The authorities must not be able to use the excuse that a regional plan does not yet exist to refuse permission, he says. Another unknown is exactly how the ZDEs would mesh with the regional plans and if ZDEs would even continue to exist at all.

Most observers agree that lurking behind all these proposed changes are the increasingly concerted and sophisticated attacks by opponents of the wind industry (Windpower Monthly, October 2008). "The industry is greatly worried," admits André Antolini of the Renewable Energy Syndicate (SER), a trade association. While ADEME and SER continue to refute the opposition's arguments and strongly present the case for wind power, it is not enough, he says. "In the face of such a violent campaign of misinformation, a campaign of truth is needed, and only the state can do this." But many in the industry feel that the government's stand is decidedly ambiguous. On the one hand it "seems to be making permitting more and more difficult, while also saying they will respect the targets," complains Elie Cohen of the National Centre for Scientific Research.

Targets and offshore

On a more positive note, the wind industry is reassured by Borloo's reiteration of the target of 25,000 MW of installed wind power capacity in France by 2020. There was also confirmation that ZDEs will not apply to offshore wind installations. Instead, the government will establish three special authorities, one for each coast, the English Channel, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. They will be charged with identifying suitable areas for offshore development in consultation with all parties concerned. According to the Borloo Plan, regulations for offshore development will also be "greatly simplified." Planète Eolien, a pro-wind federation, welcomed the measures, saying "the conditions will finally be right to establish a sizeable offshore wind farm."

Borloo also confirmed that a new decree reinstating the premium purchase price for wind set in 2006 would be issued "in the coming days." In August, the earlier decree was annulled on a point of procedure after wind power opponents brought it before the high court (Windpower Monthly, October 2008), causing much consternation in the industry. Owners of plant completed since August have not been able to sign a power purchase contract with utility EDF entitling them to the premium rate, but have instead had to be content with a commercial contract, which only just covers costs. They can apply for a new contract once the replacement decree is issued. Some companies are rumoured to be struggling because of lower than anticipated returns. Others have chosen not to bring their turbines on line. Fabrice Cassin, a Parisian lawyer specialising in wind power, estimates that 200-300 MW in France may be affected.

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